Gloucester County Times

Hurdle Remains For Paid Leave

Gloucester County Times — Sunday, April 6, 2008

By Trish G. Graber

TRENTON — After months of political wrangling, the Senate Monday will consider final approval of legislation to provide workers up to six weeks of paid time off to care for a family member or a new baby.

If passed, the bill would be sent to the desk of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who has said he would sign it, making New Jersey the third state to enact paid family leave legislation.

Both houses have already approved the measure.

Typically, a vote like Monday's in which the Senate will consider recent changes would win easy approval.

But it comes after increasingly grave economic forecasts at a time when opponents in the business community, who say the measure will hurt the state's economic climate, have intensified their resistance.

As a result, Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, the bill sponsor, said he doesn't expect the votes to come easily.

"We're very close. I don't have a lot of room to spare in the Senate," said Sweeney, D-3, of West Deptford.

Democrats control the Senate 23-17. But last month, a Mercer County Democrat Sen. Shirley Turner voted against the measure, while Sen. Ron Rice, an Essex County Democrat, abstained from voting, and one Republican, Sen. Bill Baroni, of Middlesex, voted for it.

Now opponents are hoping that those who originally supported the bill will take a second look.

"I would certainly hope those who favor this legislation would recognize that we are in a very difficult economic situation," said Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Warren/Hunterdon. "And this will exacerbate the situation."

New Jersey Business and Industry Association President Philip Kirschner, a staunch opponent of the bill, said he thinks a few senators will reconsider their support.

"Even among people who support paid family leave, some are saying, Is this something we should do right now?' " said Kirschner.

While opponents of the measure say the state cannot afford to place itself at a competitive disadvantage during slow economic times, many Democrats and labor groups have said these times actually warrant creation of the self-insurance program.

The bill would expand the state's Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) program.

It would cost the average employee about $33 a year, less than a $1 a week, for the ability to use up to six weeks of leave to care for a sick family member, a newborn or a newly adopted child. Employees would receive two-thirds of their pay, or up to $524 a week, under the program.

If passed, the legislation would allow use of up to $25 million from the existing TDI fund to get the program up and running, to be paid back by 2011.

Employers would not pay into the fund.

Paid leave benefits would be available beginning July 1, 2009, with employee withdrawals for the "self-insurance" beginning on Jan. 1.

Sweeney, a labor leader, called the measure one of the most important he has worked on during his time in the Legislature.

"This is a fight that I think is worth fighting for," he said.

Since its introduction, he and other sponsors have emphasized that they have made numerous changes to accommodate the business community.

They scaled back the allowed time off under the program from 10 to six weeks, included a provision allowing businesses with fewer than 50 employees to decide whether to keep a worker who takes time off under the program, and required that at least two weeks of vacation or sick time be used concurrent with the paid leave.

The most recent amendments would prohibit employees from suing small businesses and increase the penalties for fraud.

On Friday, the business community launched a last-minute attempt to hamper the bill's passage, with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce releasing a report showing that the program could be more costly than anticipated because of the poor economic climate and overly optimistic estimates for the program's usage.

Advocates brushed off the analysis commissioned by the chamber, calling it a desperate attempt to kill the legislation.

"Opponents of family leave insurance in New Jersey have tried just about everything," said Ev Liebman of New Jersey Citizen Action. "Now, they're desperately ... in search of new arguments to discredit a bill that will help working people balance the obligations of job and family."

The state Office of Legislative Services estimates that 38,200 people would use the benefit annually, based on statistics from California, the only other state with an active paid leave program.

California offers six weeks of paid leave; Washington state has approved five weeks of paid leave but has yet to implement the program.

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